Thirty years ago, a company called Etak released the first commercially available computerized navigation system for automobiles. Spearheaded by an engineer named Stan Honey and bankrolled by Nolan Bushnell, the cofounder of Atari, the company’s Navigator was so far ahead of its time that the phrase “ahead of its time” seems like an understatement.
To appreciate just how amazing the concept of car navigation was in 1985, you need to recall that the Global Positioning System—the constellation of satellites operated by the U.S. government—didn’t come fully online until a decade later, in 1995. Even then, the feds crippled GPS to be no more accurate than within 100 meters to ensure it wouldn’t help bad guys aim guided missiles. In 2000, that restriction was lifted, allowing a new era of consumer GPS navigational gadgets to flourish.
Etak beat modern GPS systems to market by a decade and a half. It was so early that its inventors had to digitize their own maps and figure out how to get them into an automobile in an era before solid-state mass storage, optical discs, or wireless Internet was available to do the job. (The solution: special tape cassettes.)
Everything about Etak’s Navigator had to be conceived from scratch. And it worked.
The Navigator wasn’t a big seller, especially by 2015 standards. But neither was it a dead end. To build it, Etak had to devise technologies and collect data that are still in use today by some of the most familiar navigation apps and devices on the planet. This is the little-known story of how it came to be.